A Christmas lesson from Owen

One Filipino taxi driver works 16 hours a day to provide for his family.  

By Attorney Johnson Lazaro

The Christmas season is often focused on bigger and better stuff. Everyone wants to outdo what they did last Christmas. More presents, better parties, more fun. But for many, this time of year means frustration and even depression. Those who live in the worst type of poverty, in the poorest countries, such as the Philippines, struggle this time of year, and all year, to simply have their most basic needs met.

Even in the midst of desperation, you can meet individuals like Owen. Owen is a taxi cab driver, navigating some of the most dangerous and hazardous streets in Manila. Despite the infamous congestion, Owen drives his cab at least 16 hours a day to provide for his three children and his wife. On even the best of days he might only make the equivalent of $60 American dollars.

I had the privilege of getting to know Owen while on one of my many trips to the U.S. Embassy. He told me how he and his family live in one of the slum districts of a small town. The slums of Manila are crowded, dirty places.  Many slum dwellers don’t enjoy comforts such as running water or electricity.  The biggest challenge of living in this type of area, however, is the crime. It is estimated that over 20 million people call the Philippine slums their home.

Regardless of his dire circumstances, Owen seemed ecstatic when I met him three weeks before Christmas. He shared with me how he and his family are anticipating the arrival of Christmas. He showed me how hope flourishes even in dark situations. He also shared how he longs to leave the slums so that he and his family could find a safer community to live in.

Yearning for a better life

Moving out of the slums is difficult. Owen must work 16-hour days just to make enough to live on. During the holidays he can make more money if he works longer hours, sacrificing sleep and only taking small naps in his cab in between customers. “It’s just the way it is. I hope things get better, but I thank God for what He has already given me.” I am startled by his gratitude and bravery.

Children in the slums of Manila: Happiness is a choice.

Despite all of these challenges, during the Christmas season you still see how even the poorest here celebrate as they decorate with lights and sing carols. In some areas Christmas celebrations can be seen as early as September. I noticed this contagious Christmas cheer in everyone, from my doorman at the hotel, to the lady in the streets selling duck eggs, Balut she called them.  Life in America has really blinded me to how it’s possible for these people to find so much to be excited about. I asked Owen about this. “How do you keep up your spirits despite so much hardship and grinding poverty?”

Happiness is a choice

His smile was genuine as he answered, “It’s Christmas, masaya lang talaga.” This means, “It’s Christmas. I’m just happy.” It’s fascinating to see someone really living out the old adage of “happiness is just a choice.”

On other occasions, during different times of the year, I see an unusual level of contentment in these people. To be happy with what you already have despite having so little, can be a noble idea for someone like me who goes crazy when there’s no wi-fi available.

Owen is just happy to have his wife and children healthy and together with him. He does not pretend that life is not hard, but he admitted that he is still blessed.

On our way to our destination, the rain began to pour. Soon the streets of Makati were flooded. I noticed the street vendors were drenched. All the dust turned to mud and the bus riders waited in the sludge for their rides home.  Looking out at the dismal weather I tried Owen one more time. “Don’t you get angry that you must work over 16 hours a day in these conditions, and yet still struggle to feed your family?”

He smiled again and said, “Okay lang yan, magbabago po yan sa awa nang Diyos.” Things will change in due time because God is merciful.

Owen taught me much in a short time. He taught me that it’s not the Christmas season that brings hope and ultimately improvement in your life. It’s actually the attitude that you bring as you move through the flow of life that affect the quality of your days on this earth. If you keep moving forward, despite the hardships and setbacks, sprinkle in a little faith and positive intention, things will change. It is a simple message, but this could be the most important message of Christmas. Merry Christmas, everyone!

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